Snowhaven, by Tristin Grizel Dean

“Snowhaven” is a charming interactive fiction game that focuses more on its atmospheric setting than specific puzzles.

Gameplay: The bulk of the gameplay consists of fairly straightforward puzzles encountered by the protagonist as he prepares for his sibling’s visit. While solving them, he ruminates on the situation with his sibling and reflects on his environment. There are also variations of the game available, promising a pleasant, emotive, or sinister story. I didn’t explore any beyond the first one I played in detail, though, and the sinister one is locked behind a password. 5/10.

Mechanics: The focus of the game is its setting and the protagonist’s part in it. There’s a clear list of tasks to perform, and they’re more of an excuse to wander around and muse on the protagonist’s situation rather than anything particularly novel in themselves (though I did like the puzzle involving the combination to the storage chest early in the game). There were a few bits of awkwardness with the interface, though, such as an inability to look up a stew recipe in a cookbook (you need to supply the specific kind of stew you’re trying to make, which can be found elsewhere) and an empty response when try to GET IN BOAT. 5/10.

Presentation: The game features stark black-and-white graphics and a relaxing soundtrack, both of which nicely complement its isolated, slow-moving setting. The recollections or musings of the protagonist develop his personality and build up the reader’s interest in what would otherwise be a traditional game about set-piece puzzles and exploration. Fundamentally, “Snowhaven” is a game about creating a specific kind of atmosphere, and it does so effectively. 7/10.

You might enjoy this game if: You enjoy bucolic winter landscapes.

Score: 6.

Waiting for the Day Train, by Dee Cooke

“Waiting for the Day Train” is a simple game about exploration, written in the style of a pre-Infocom text adventure.

Gameplay: The puzzles are largely ones of collecting items and using them in different places. It’s a simple game with a compact map, and the brevity of the game prevents the sparse environment from wearing out its welcome. The puzzles are a bit surreal but clued strongly enough not to be frustrating. 4/10.

Mechanics: The game is a classic one that doesn’t involve any novel mechanics. Its focus is exploring a crazy-quilt environment with useful objects in odd locations (the first puzzle, for example, requires finding a chainsaw hidden under a rock). Along with the telegraphic prose of the game, that style of play reminds me of the earlier Scott Adams games. 4/10.

Presentation: As sparse as the main text in the game is, there are nevertheless quite a few embellishments to the game. There are photographs accompanying each room and a soundtrack, although the latter is short enough to get repetitive quickly. There’s a frame story and an introduction to the game, with 8-bit-style graphics and a more verbose style of prose. The juxtaposition of the two is odd, even given the two worlds of the setting they represent, and the introduction is a bit long for a sequence that’s entirely non-interactive. I didn’t run into any guess-the-verb issues, though the syntax involved in dealing with the stepping stones is a bit odd, and the exits listing is helpful. 5/10.

Tilt: There’s a simple puzzle about magpies that block your path. +1.

You might enjoy this game if: You find the setting the author described in the game’s introduction compelling.

Score: 5

Return to the Stars, by Adrian Weckler

Serious science fiction, whether soft or hard, is an area of interactive fiction that isn’t as popular or prominent as I would expect. “Returns to the Stars” is a short work of military-flavored sci-fi that provides a solid contribution to this genre.

Gameplay: The setup is a simple one: You are imprisoned on an alien planet and have to return to your own homeworld. Escaping the prison and then escaping the planet itself are matters mostly of exploration rather than more specific puzzle-solving; the puzzles that do exist are mostly ones of figuring out the details of the environment and acquiring objects from and using objects in their expected locations. It’s a grittier world than the sterilized ones of more utopian science fiction or the goofy ones of space operas, and exploring the world feels natural and motivated given the protagonist’s situation. 6/10.

Mechanics: Although there are puzzles in the game, its main emphasis is exploration. After a set-piece puzzle about breaking out of a prison cell, escaping the prison itself is simply a matter of finding the appropriate switch to deactivate the building’s locks. Locating the correct switch requires a translator, but your confiscated equipment has one. The atmosphere is not breathable, but your equipment again has the right tool for the task. This setup is ultimately a positive one, rather than a drawback; it creates the feeling of being stuck on an alien world and having to fend for yourself, rather than solving contrived physical puzzles and, say, escaping your prison cell Zork-II-style with a placemat and a letter opener. The exception is the force field in the military complex later in the game, which I would classify as a singular puzzle rather than an environmental obstacle. It’s motivated, well-clued, and reasonable to solve, though, so it doesn’t break the atmosphere of the rest of the game. 6/10.

Presentation: The text is simple and well-suited to its particular style of gritty, militaristic science-fiction. There is a mode for novice players (which I didn’t try out) and hints, which are both helpful. The game has an odd combination of a few guess-the-verb issues (e.g., dealing with the grate in the first scene) and also going to great lengths to identify certain commands (the best examples of which are the alternative commands for solving the last puzzle in the game given in the hints). I expected the game to require granular commands for actions like booting up the systems on an alien ship, but BOOT UP SHIP works perfectly well. That style fits the atmosphere of the game, which strongly evokes that more serious sci-fi genre consistently throughout the gameplay. 7/10.

You might enjoy this game if: You like serious but not dour sci-fi.

Score: 6

The Time Machine, by Bill Maya

H. G. Wells’ “Time Machine” is a classic work of early science fiction, and Bill Maya’s “Time Machine” is a short interactive-fiction work based off it. Rather than following the original story directly, though, the protagonist attempts to recreate the journey, here taken by Wells himself, to prove the author’s sanity.

Gameplay: To prove that the machine is indeed functional, the protagonists explores Wells’ laboratory, travels to the distant future, and recovers a flower as evidence for Wells’ story. The present-time setting is realistic but not particularly interesting, and there isn’t much at all to do in the future. Wells himself never appears (or, at least, I completed the game without encountering him after the opening cutscene), and there’s no further exploration of time travel beyond fetching an object from the future and traveling back with it. More than half the game is spent trying to get the time machine up and running, but there’s no payoff to the player (as opposed to the protagonist) besides continuing the plot. 4/10.

Mechanics: There are a few mechanical puzzles involved in getting into the laboratory, and repairing the time machine requires fetching a replacement part. In the future, obtaining the flower doesn’t involve much beyond wandering around the setting and having some desultory interactions with the Eloi there. Time travel itself isn’t a mechanic besides jumping once into the future and once back to the present, and the puzzles in the game are familiar ones that could fit into any other genre of interactive fiction. 5/10.

Presentation: The gameplay is solid, although there were problems with a few commands: Trying to KILL HUMBOLDT doesn’t give any response at all, and the command TAKE ALL is disabled without any particularly compelling reason for it. The first half of the game does establish the Victorian setting, but there aren’t many distinctive details of the future setting. Even though the NPCs had a bit of personality to them, they ultimately weren’t distinctive either. The text of the game itself is solid mechanically but doesn’t have much flavor to add to a plot and puzzles that don’t offer a lot of originality. A fan sequel or extension to Wells’ original story is a great idea that definitely has potential, but it needs some compelling hook or vivid prose to grab the player. 4/10.

You might enjoy this game if: You’re a fan of the original novella.

Score: 4

Daddy’s Birthday, by Jonathan8

The hoary advice given to authors is to write what you know. It’s not bad advice (though not applicable if want to write games about demons, comic-book supervillains, or financial crimes), but it can be difficult to get other readers invested in something that happened in your own life, even if it was interesting to you. To quote much better advice, personal isn’t the same as important. Especially in a short game with no time to develop the protagonist as a character, it’s tricky to get the audience involved in a low-stakes story without any context or universality. “Daddy’s Birthday” manages to avoid this problem by being charming and short enough to avoid wearing out its welcome.

Gameplay: You are a father on his birthday, and you’re wandering downstairs after waking up. That’s it for story, and there really doesn’t need to be any more of it. There’s no laundry list of items to collect, contrived set-piece puzzles to solve, or overwrought monologues to slog through. The author’s notes state that the game was based off a conversation with his eight-year-old daughter, and the game has the charm of having being written with a child without the implementation hiccups of having been written by a child. It’s not profound, but it’s not trying to be. 7/10.

Mechanics: There aren’t any unusual mechanics in the game: You wander around a house, pick up an object or two, and finish off the game. Your goals at each point in the game is clear, and there aren’t any significant obstacles in the way of them. 5/10.

Presentation: The text is smooth throughout. Although it’s based on an idea from the author’s daughter and is written from the viewpoint of a child (narrating an adult’s actions), the game avoids being twee or indulgent. It has the odd and compelling style of explaining a child’s viewpoint to an adult, and it manages to present a narrative that is simultaneously tailored to a specific, younger audience and a general, older one. It’s charming. 7/10.

You might like this game if: You were ever considering writing a similar game for or with your own child.

Score: 6

Black Knife Dungeon, by Arthur DiBianca

Unsurprisingly for someone involved with interactive fiction, I also like console and computer role-playing games. “Black Knife Dungeon” is a simple implementation of a bare-bones RPG, where the goal is to descend through a dungeon, fight monsters, and collect loot to spend on getting better at descending through the dungeon and fighting monsters.

Gameplay: The game isn’t (and isn’t intended to be) a deep one in terms of mechanics or story; instead, it’s a simple dungeon crawl designed as a pleasant time-waster or distraction while watching television or a movie. You acquire weapons and armor, beat up monsters, and move on to the next level of the dungeon. There’s not a lot of space for tactics, although different monsters respond differently to different kinds of attacks. There is some satisfaction to gaining money and equipment of the course of the game, even if it’s fundamentally random. 5/10.

Mechanics: The core of the game is completing a list of goals by fighting random encounters in a dungeon. Combat is simply a matter of choosing a method of attack and hoping for favorable die rolls. It’s therefore more of a push-your-luck game rather than an RPG, with the main decision being whether you should return to the dungeon with your loot or press on. The only penalty to dying in the dungeon is missing out on a 10% money bonus, though, so there’s not much tension in the game. 4/10.

Presentation: The game is deliberately sparse, but there are some embellishments that make it naturally fit as a text-adventure rather than something like a console RPG. The areas you travel through are randomly generated, for example, but maps suggest that you search in certain locations, and so the room and enemy descriptions aren’t just there for flavor. There’s a frame involving an overworld town, and there’s a bit more latitude in movement there than in the dungeon itself. The game would have worked equally well as a choice-based game, aside from the nature of the competition. 5/10.

You might like this game if: You want a light diversion while watching or working on something else, and you like old-school RPGs.

Score: 5

Acid Rain, by Garry Francis

There was a bit of boom in the 1980s in treasure-hunt style text adventures. In addition to the commercial ones (the most famous one being Zork I, but the Infocom game Hollywood Hijinx is squarely in the same category), many games were released as listings in books or magazines. “Acid Rain” is based on one such game, but the author has not just ported it to a modern interpreter. Instead, he’s recreated it based on his notes from playing the original game. The result is a solidly 1980s-style game that nevertheless has a few of its rougher edges smoothed off.

Gameplay: This game is fundamentally an early-1980-style treasure hunt, with all of the gameplay features and styles that evokes. The game’s map is much larger than it needs to be, and it’s full of empty hallways and eigenrooms: rooms containing exactly one object of interest, used exactly once and then subsequently ignored. It’s sizable for a game of that era, and it’s comparable in room count and possibly move count to a modern IFComp entry. It’s a puzzle-based game, yet almost all of the puzzles are simply a matter of picking up one freely-available object and using it in a different place. 5/10.

Mechanics: Keeping with its origin, the game is fundamentally a treasure hunt in which the protagonist wanders around an abandoned mansion and finds the random mechanical components needed to construct a means of escaping it. None of the puzzles are frustrating or difficult, but none are particularly memorable either. Some minor annoyances from that era of game, such as strict inventory limits and hunger demons (in this case, flashlight batteries), are inevitably present, but the author has taken steps to minimize them. Items can be left in hub locations without any penalty, and replacement batteries are available shortly after entering the mansion.

The arbitrary and unintuitive puzzles from that era (e.g., naming the gnome in King’s Quest, or the Bank of Zork puzzle from Zork II) are also present. There’s a cryptic message written on toilet paper for no particular reason, for example, that isn’t even much of a puzzle. This item was presumably part of the original game, and the author is at least able to lampshade it, but it’s still awkward. On the other hand, objects in the game were generally where I expected them to be. If was looking for a screwdriver, for example, it was in its logical place in the equipment room, not hidden under the cushions in the lounge or under a pile of laundry. That sort of haphazard, scavenger-hunt-style placement of ordinary items was common in games of that era (see the 1980s game Shadowgate, for example), but Acid Rain avoids it. 6/10.

Presentation: The author does a great job of improving the game with modern sensibilities in mind, but it’s still fundmentally a game about wandering through a map, picking up treasures, and solving some basic puzzles. It’s enjoyable as throwback to a very different era and style of game, and players with more nostalgia from that time may have a better time with it than I did. There were a few minor guess-the-verb issues: MOVE SHEETS works, but LOOK UNDER SHEETS or LOOK IN BED does not, and the code on the keypad only works in lowercase. There were no serious problems, though, and the author was effective in improving the interface from games of that period.

The writing in the game is typically sparse. I personally didn’t find its jokes, such as the Magnetic Scrolls reference or the annoying macaw or the indescribable monster, to be that funny. They’re definitely the sort of humor this genre had, though, and they fit nicely into the game. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You have fond memories of 80s games, but you want to play one with more care and polish than is usual from games of that era.

Score: 6

Fivebyfivia Delenda Est, by Andrew Schultz

I would expect there to be a large overlap between fans of interactive fiction and fans of chess, but I’m surprised (as is the author, judging from the game’s notes) that there isn’t much overlap between interactive fiction puzzles and chess puzzles. There’s a desultory puzzle set on a chessboard in Zork Zero, and there’s an breezy puzzle in Zork: Grand Inquisitor that’s ostensibly related to chess, but that’s about it. If anything, Fivebyfivia is more reminiscent of The 7th Guest, with a very different interface and tone but the same sort of puzzles.

Gameplay: In the first three puzzles of the game, the protagonist moves around the 5×5 gameboard like a knight and can deploy a piece at his current position. The goal is to set up a mate using a certain set of pieces. These are all simple puzzles (mate with two rooks, a queen and a king, and a rook and a king), and they should be straightforward for anyone familiar with chess; the only complication is the restriction on the player’s movement. In the final puzzle, the player simply moves around rather than deploying pieces, and the goal is to complete an open knight’s tour of the 5×5 grid. This puzzle is also a standard one, although it requires a bit more work than the previous ones to solve. The puzzles are fine for a short game, but they don’t have much depth. 6/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles are presented cleanly, and it’s clear how they work and what the criteria for solving the area. The main mechanic of the game, combining movement around a chessboard and standard chess puzzles, is original. It’s not deep, but it’s fine for such a short game. The last puzzle, the knight’s tour, is more tedious. It’s reminiscent of the unmotivated chess puzzles in the 7th Guest and its sequel, and solving it feels like a chore. It is a way of extending the central mechanic of the game, and it’s not particularly difficult or long, but it was unsatisfying to complete. 6/10.

Presentation: The game is little more than a thin wrapper around its puzzles, but that’s by design, and it’s perfectly fine for a game as short as this one. Despite that, it’s full of polish like quality-of-life improvements (abbreviations for the L-shaped knight’s moves), hint system, a few jokes, and a genuinely amusing frame to the story. It’s an odd thing to mention for a game in ParserComp, but it could work equally well with a point-and-click interface, given its mechanics. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like chess.

Score: 6

ParserComp 2021

It turns out that I have a bit of spare time over the next few weeks, so I’ll be going through the entries in this year’s ParserComp. The games are available to the public now (and I encourage readers to give them a try; they look fun), and I’ll post reviews in a few days, once I’ve had a chance to play them myself.

Reviews for 2020

I’ve had a number* of people ask me recently if I’m going to review all the games in the IFComp again. This year, I have a game in the competition myself, and so I won’t be posting any reviews. Instead, I would encourage you all to play and judge games in IFComp 2020, or take a look at the archives via the menu at the top right for past reviews.

* Specifically, zero.